I received a copy of this book back in November 2019 and I’ve been itching to pick it up but allowed it to make its way to the top of the TBR before I did. I have to say right here and now that it’s one of the best music books I’ve read – and I’ve read a fair few – entertaining and unputdownable and telling the really rather sweet (amongst all the admitted petty criminality) story of seven North London lads who came together to become a long-lasting band, and are still playing the first three songs they recorded today. I will also say here that I was fortunate enough to be the transcriber* for this project, something I thoroughly enjoyed.

Madness – “Before We Was We”

(November 2019 – from the author)

So, here then are the ragamuffin early days of Madness, 1970-1979. Strap yourself in. No arms outside the car, please. They’re taking you for a ride and they don’t call them the Nutty Boys for nothing. (p. xi)

It’s all in their own words, apart from the Foreword by Dave Robinson of Stiff Records and the Prologue by Tom Doyle; Tom is credited with a “with Tom Doyle” on the title page, so all is as it should be there, and he did an absolutely sterling job of stitching those blocks of words together to make a coherent whole. It was my job (shared with permission) to transcribe* the many hours of interviews Tom did with the seven members of the group, and I’m really proud of how the book shows my contribution to capturing the individual voices of the interviewees – important in any ghosted or otherwise supported book, and vitally important in a multiple autobiography. It’s something I enjoy doing, pride myself in and am known for, but it’s lovely to see it sitting there on the page, too.

The book is funny, charming and moving. I didn’t really have an opinion either way on Madness at the start of the project but came to love the warmth of their relationships as a band and their honesty, good humour and generosity, and I think the non-fan as well as the fan could get a lot out of this book, as it showcases a London in 1970-79 that just doesn’t exist any more – bomb sites and youth clubs, music venues, some long-lost, kids running around all day and night … It doesn’t romanticise it, either: crimes are shown for what they are and there’s a point at which each band member realises things are going too far and they’d better reel themselves back in, shared trajectories moving towards each other.

We see the band members spotting each other at school, knowing each other’s friends and brothers, moving to whistling for them outside their windows or starting to form bands with shifting pools of members until they eventually coalesce into Madness. We see the same experiences and events from different perspectives, just as if they were sitting chatting about them, and there’s so much humour as they compare their lives: Here’s Mike:

I was always interested in drawing … from my mum, i suppose. Lee’s dad was a burglar, so he was interested in burgling. My mum was an aspiring artist, so I was into art. (p. 32)

But it’s moving, too. Mike and Chris find out, 40 years after the fact, and seem genuinely surprised, that Lee was touched by them visiting him at remand school in their mid-teens. There are amazing links that could have been near-misses, for example when Cathal stops to mock Suggs’ new coat – “it’s a bird’s one!” and casually drops into the conversation that he’s playing bass in a band called The Invaders …

The theme of the book could be this, said by Suggs near the end as they’re getting more serious about their music:

You had two choices – the criminal activity and all that, or maybe being a bit more creative. (p. 136)

In reality, the book has a lot to say about class, education and chances: the only opportunities to break out of the world of petty criminality and a gig economy similar to today’s employment in a lot of ways (except most people probably don’t nick their painter’s bucket and overalls from Woolies on the day they start work!) were through creative activities.

They address the unpleasant racist followers, keen on their look and not understanding the reggae-based nature of their music and love of Black music in general, and the youthful mistakes some of them made back then trying to explain that. There’s a huge amount of affection for The Specials, who they toured with just before going to America (their experiences there are hilarious), which is where the book ends, as their audience shifts to being younger and more female with the release of My Girl.

As well as the excellent introduction and foreword there are loads of pictures, black and white plates, crowdsourced endpapers and a set of photo booth poses commented on by the band members. Lovely for the fan, collector, music fan or person interested in social history.

* What’s transcribing? I’m sent the audio file of the interview and load it into my transcription management software. Like the old audio typists’ pedals, this allows me to play, rewind and fast forward the tape using the F keys at the top of my keyboard. I type out the transcription to the requirements of my client (do they need me to note the time by every question or every 5 or 10 minutes, do they want their questions in full, do they want the interviewee completely verbatim with all ums and ers or tidied up a bit) and annotate any parts I can’t make out or am unsure of, check spellings and names as I go along so it’s as easy for them to use as it can be and send it back in a Word document. The client then uses the text I’ve produced from their interview as the basis for the text of the book.